International ships are making their way to Hawaiian waters for the Rim of the Pacific international maritime exercise.

A group of ships from the Royal Australian Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Akizuki-class destroyer JS Teruzuki are currently conducting joint exercises with the U.S. Navy in the Philippine Sea as they make their voyage, practicing aviation operations and communications drills.

Captain Sakano Yusuke, Commander of Japan’s Escort Division 4, told Australian outlet Mirage News that “The experience in this exercise will give us tactical and operational advantages and make our friendships stronger, in addition to our regular joint exercises with both like-minded navies.”

The bi-annual RIMPAC is the world’s largest naval exercise. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to planners scaling back, planning for fewer participants and no trips by sailors to Honolulu.

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This year’s RIMPAC comes at a time of heightened tension in the Pacific. Last week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected all Chinese claims to resources and trade routes in the South China Sea. Beijing has laid claim to the Spratly Islands, putting it in tension with the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam — all of which have been RIMPAC participants in previous years.

RIMPAC is the world’s largest naval exercise, but in light of the pandemic the U.S. Navy is expecting a much smaller event. The exercise is getting a late start this year and will be shorter. Navy officials also say it will take place entirely at sea.

In previous years, foreign sailors flooded Honolulu’s bars and clubs during shore leave, but the pandemic also means that sailors won’t be ashore. Ships will only come into harbor for fueling and maintenance.

The Japanese and Australian ships are scheduled to arrive in Hawaii on July 23.

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